In honour of World Book Day this week, Marése O’Sullivan spoke to the new Chair of The Society of Young Publishers (SYP), Helen Youngs, to find out about her publishing career so far, being impressed by famous people and what her plans are for the SYP.
It’s Helen Youngs’ first interview and her blue eyes light up behind her glasses. Surrounded by rows of bookshelves bearing the names of Random House’s most famous writers, after six months she has firmly settled into her role as a Sales Operations Assistant with a Jacqueline Wilson mousepad.
The 24-year-old has just been appointed the Chair of The Society of Young Publishers (SYP), which has been helping young people to make their way in what she calls the “impenetrable” publishing industry for 65 years. Although she admits that being a publisher wasn’t her dream job.
“I still have wistful dreams of being a writer ‘when I grow up’!” she laughs. “I write most days, just for myself. Originally, when I went into publishing, I thought it would make it easier for me to get published, but I think it’s made me more cynical.”
Now that she’s establishing herself at a “big boy publisher”, she’s become comfortable with the idea of managing 24 people on the SYP committee. As someone who was initially terrified of public speaking, she’s had to put herself more on the front line. “We have three types of events every month. We have a book club, really casual social evenings in a pub, and speaker events, which I find the most beneficial because you’re learning from individuals in the industry who know their…shizzle.” She giggles. “I don’t want to sound presumptuous or anything, but I do feel I’m quite good at getting the most out of people, because I’m quite friendly.”
All she wanted to do as a child was read and write, growing up on Harry Potter, and claims she wasn’t very good at school. She was finally motivated when she moved to a new school for sixth form, where she got a solid group of friends and began an A-Level in Classical Civilisation.
“It changed my life,” she says. “My teacher Bob was one of the most eccentric men I’ve ever met. He had curtains [for hair] and he brought a harp in for Show and Tell. He was utterly passionate. I totally fell in love with him. Those are the types of people that I want to learn from.” It was then she made the choice to continue to university at Kingston, where she earned a first in English Literature and Creative Writing.
She interned at three literary agencies after graduation and very much enjoyed it – “I’m really impressed by famous people. Rupert Everett came into the office and I was like oh my God!” – and then worked for small publishing companies before getting a job at Random House. “When you see the authors come in, you’re so excited by that. We all get ‘champagne moments’. I was like ‘Wow! We drink champagne every week!’ Networking is the most necessary of evils, but I don’t feel there’s a hierarchy here.”
Her job involves processing orders and talking to companies such as Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s to analyse how much stock they need. Her dad wanted her to be an accountant, but he soon realised that she wasn’t going to be a “crazy corporate.” She thinks her grandmother Violet is perhaps where her love of books came from. “She was a secretary and still uses shorthand. Her sight’s going so I buy her audio books, like Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. It’s such a poignant read.”
The Marketing Manager at Bloomsbury, Sophia Blackwell, is her role model because she combines her high-flying career with being a performance poet. “She is so fab, young and inspiring,” says Youngs.
She urges potential publishers to keep going, be persistent and be passionate. “I want to say being a romantic and a love of books [are key], but employers are looking for people who know the business, are hard workers, are able to read quickly and have a good knowledge of what sells.” As Chair of the SYP, she’s just launched a mentor scheme to help young people advance their careers.
She doesn’t worry about possible future redundancies in an industry fraught with competition. “As long as I make myself as indispensible and as proactive as possible at Random House, there will always be opportunities for people who are enthusiastic and willing to try their best.”